One year in San Francisco as a Software Engineer
In 2017 the company I worked for in Toronto got acquired by Yelp. The software engineers in my company (including myself) were asked to move to San Francisco. At the end of 2017 we moved, and I spent most of 2018 there. With the year coming to an end, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on my time there.
As a software engineer, it’s often suggested that you haven’t really made it to the top, unless you work in the Bay Area. I disagree with this idea, but it’s easy to see why some people feel this way.
On my first trip to SF, it was already quite telling. Flying from Toronto airport I noticed a higher than usual technology themed tees, stickers on laptops and black terminals. Pretty exciting! By chance My Uber driver to downtown told me he was applying to a free machine learning course ran by Google. On the way I noticed that the billboards next to the highways were directly targeting developers.
SF felt like the Mecca of tech, but also the center of capitalism. There is a lot of money, but not a lot of wealth. Salaries are the highest I’ve personally seen, but so is the cost of living.
As a software engineer this more or less evens out (compared to Toronto, where I’ve lived and worked for a long time), but if you’re not in the business it’s rough.
Before I moved to SF I never had the intention to move to the Bay. It just wasn’t a goal for me. But when the opportunity arose, we felt that for the trip to be worth it, we didn’t really want to lower our qualtity of living standard, and we wanted a 2-bedroom apartment and a reasonable commute. Ultimately this meant that our rent was $4250 USD per month, and a larger portion of our salary going towards rent. Had we stayed longer, we would definitely have tried to find a cheaper place to live and save more.
You can imagine that at those prices, it’s very difficult for many people to live in San Francisco. The cost of living has exploded in the last 30 years, and many people blame the tech industry for this.
Personally I can emphathize with the sentiment. Even though I don’t think that 20-something programmers in Google buses are personally responsible for the disparity, but the brandless tinted Google buses are a powerful symbol for new class system.
I’ve never seen so much poverty and homelessness before. There’s many major streets where wearing open shoes would be a big no-no, because of used needles lying around in plain sight. Seeing people shooting up on Market Street is pretty normal.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I imagine in many cities this addiction and poverty might be more contained to certain neighbourhoods. It’s much easier that way to pretend it doesn’t exist if you don’t see it. One of the silver linings in SF is that there were lots of places to safely do drugs.
But it’s a weird juxtaposition. There are times where our engineering team would have lunch in Yerba Buena Gardens, and if you looked one way you would see electric scooters and onewheels zooming by, and I was actually reminded of Star Trek episodes that feature Starfleet Academy. I’m not a cynic and it felt like a futuristic place to be. But, look the other way and you might see someone defecating on the street. This is absolutely not hyperbole. San Francisco has a poo problem.
Some people in the tech industry feel pretty awful about this, others are straight up sociopaths with zero empathy and happily broadcast how they really feel (that specific person has turned a new page after the fallout from his comments, but the the article is worth a read to see how different people think about this).
When I first moved to San Francisco, one of my friends told me on the phone “it takes about 1-2 months to no longer really see the homeless”. While he didn’t mean it literally, most people I spoke to adjusted to the homelessness problem after living in SF for a little while, and developed a sort of cognitive dissonance. For me the initial shock wore off after some time and it became fact of life. Occasionally you’re pulled back to reality when something particularly shocking happens right in front of you. Sharing those events with friends usually result in conversations where people comment on how absurd everything is or people share their own recent anecdotes.
In my time there I’ve spent a ton thinking about the ethics of this situation and what my responsibility is. The truth is, aside from buying a few sandwiches for people who asked I’ve done almost nothing and feel like a hypocrite for it.
I grew up in a small town in The Netherlands. Population 6000. I grew up thinking I would be the type of person that would reach out when somebody asks for help, but I’ve slowly learned that I’m not actually that person. Once I saw a guy lie on the street next to his wheelchair. He looked confused, possibly high and I didn’t ask if he needed help. I had somewhere to be. I learned it’s the easiest to have empathy for people that are the most like me, because I can relate to them. If you have a mental problem and act ‘strange’ in any way, I just have a fight-or-flight response and wouldn’t consider making a connection.
There would have been safer ways for me to contribute, but I also didn’t do this. I didn’t donate or volunteer for anything. The way I sometimes justified this is that most of my peers don’t either and it doesn’t make me a bad person if I don’t. Other times I just feel like a hypocrite. 99% of my empathy goes to people I know personally.
It’s 2019 and we left San Francisco. Yelp wasn’t what I hoped it would be. I sound mostly negative about San Francisco, but the truth is that I really enjoyed the city. And despite all its flaws, I had a great time there and made some really good friends and memories. I ended up running into some issues with my work visa for my next job, which led me back to Toronto. Had it not been for my visa issues, we probably would have stayed in SF.
It was fun because I could afford it and because I was part of the class that benefited from the system. I can’t help wondering though that the only reason Silicon Valley and the Bay Area has been so prosperous is because it’s in a country where generally people are comfortable with having so much wealth, while having so many people live under the poverty line.
So if you’re a software engineer and considering moving to the Bay Area, you’re probably in for a great time. In my case, I worked for Yelp and it seemed that they were doing well in terms of benefits, diversity, pay and all the things any modern company should be. (at least if you’re a developer). But when you go home after work, also be prepared to see the dystopia that your industry has created as a by-product.
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Demayne Collins on Jan 3rd, 2018:
As a native San Franciscan who grew up there, the city has truly changed for worse/best depending on who is benefiting.
I no longer live in the Bay Area, but I still visit to see relatives who live there. Your article was spot on regarding the homelessness and drug addicts.
The demographics has also shifted drastically in terms of the number of minorites who work in tech and live in the city.. One of my worse fears is will San Francisco become the model for other cities across the country to follow; as tech companies take over and drive the “undesirebles”.
You are right, if you are not in tech making tech money you have no chance to survive and live comfortably, which is why there is homelessness, dispair, filth, and total disregard for the poor.
For a city who is historically known for its liberalism its sort hard to understand how such a shift in economic balance among the haves and have nots are so widespread. Its depressing eveytime I visit. This is the new modern Rome.
Sue Smart on Jan 7th, 2018:
I read your article with some interest.
I live the dichotomy because my daughters are employed fruitfully in SF’s tech world. I, on the other hand, work in academia, which pays abysmally low wages, despite the many degrees required to be employed in academia.
I must say though that I raised my daughters as a single mom. I lived in the East Bay and commuted to Silicon Valley every day for over a decade. These were years when my children were very young. I endured challenges of endless commutes and heart stopping fear that I would be late to pick up my kids.
I never could have afforded to live in Palo Alto, where I was employed then. I never used that excuse to camp out on the streets of Palo Alto or any town. I now live in a small apartment but am happy with my lot.
The problems are far deeper than your article permits. I have some radical thoughts on how things can improve. People are required to take tests to get driving permits and everything else, they should be required to take tests to have children. There are way too many children in this world and in an advanced country like the US, there should be some checks and balances. There are way too many irresponsible people who will recklessly foist their children onto the streets. It’s unbelievable cruelty.
That may seem like it’s off topic but it’s not. If people show such poor judgment, they should have to have some checks and balances along the way. Imprisonment and incarceration is not the answer but education and counseling for all parties involved, caregivers, parents, etc. would be a great tool to get people to live responsible and happy lives.
Another thing, there are a lot of greedy people in San Francisco who are occupying rent controlled units despite being able to afford market rate rent. If those people were forced to vacate and make room for the poorer residents of the city, it would free up a lot of housing. There are SO many people I know personally who live in rent controlled buildings, paying $1200 for a two bedroom and refusing to budge. These people are employed in: High Tech, Charles Schwab, etc. That is greed. The city has not shown any will in fixing that problem.
Anyway, a much longer response than you cared to get I’m sure!
Meli Jiménez Araya on Jan 7th, 2018:
I can relate to most of what you said in this article. I’m a tech worker in SF as well, and there isn’t a single week when at least one of my commutes doesn’t involve crying. Unlike a lot of my peers, I haven’t been able to turn my empathy off, and the guilt of seeing the chaos all this wealth is generating here and around the world eats me from the inside out. As my family and future rely on my work, I can’t just quit altogether, so sometimes I feel stuck in my privilege bubble, drinking fancy matcha smoothies and buying $18 avocado toasts while the rest of the population of this city who can no longer afford it, people whose families have lived here for generations are being displaced. And tech capitalism IS to blame. San Francisco can be a disgusting place. Walking around the financial district in downtown, surrounded by suits and Teslas against the backdrop ofthe poverty a few blocks down, makes me feel nauseated. one of this wealth is worth the suffering that it is creating. None of these wealthy assholes are happy either. They just consume to the detriment of the rest. I feel happy my career has lead me to a place where I’m financially stable and can fend for my self, but whenever I take a step back and look at what these systems are creating, I can no longer just isolate my experience. I guess my only real motivation is to work myself to a place where I can step off this disgusting situation, get involved with activism and use my skills for something that actually helps the world. May God or Godx or whatever thing you believe in have mercy on the souls of these scooter riding assholes.
Neil Rhoads on Jan 7th, 2018:
Thanks for the article.
As a guy who came here to SF 45 years ago, my experience of the city is quite different than the one you describe. Sure… it’s changed tremendously over the decades, god knows; some for the better, and some for the worse. But, what major city hasn’t? Arriving here 45 years ago from Nashville was a shock similar to yours. Yes, 45 years ago but still similar. This is a cosmopolitan city of the world, and naturally displays a huge range of people and lives and circumstances.
I live in the city, but not downtown, though I do go downtown now and then as well as travel all over the city, from one end to the other, for business. My impression is that this is still a fabulous place to live, as it’s always been, all these decades. Yes, I’m established, and comfortable, but my eyes and ears and pores are still open and receiving all the currents, pleasing and distressing, that this wonderful town offers to a soul longing to be free, or creative, or increasingly self-aware. I don’t require SF to conform to my expectations. I like to adapt and discover and go with the surprising flow, and it has never left me wanting…..but has always supported me in confronting and finding out more about myself as well as more about the world around me.
It’s true that the homelessness is outta control, and it’s heartbreaking so see so many suffering, and this town is dealing with it poorly. But the zeitgeist that generates that misery is plaguing us all over the friggin’ country these days. This city has always been tolerant of, and genuinely compassionate about, people working out their personal trajectories in vivid public, and still is. We’re even welcoming to those who encamp here for a year and then move back home to publish a bad review of us. We can take it, because we know how very lucky we are to call this place home.
Love this place.
Sergio Blandon on Jan 7th, 2018:
I was raised in SF during the hippie generation. 1981 49ers win the Super Bowl for the first time and buddy and I get our first apartment. 2 bedroom for $350 a month. Probably the same one going for $4250 today. I now live and hour away from the city and work in the east bay. My mom lives in the house that we grew up in. She bought that for $55.000 now it is worth a little more than 1 million. Something has to change or your barista a Starbucks wont be able to make your drink and your favorite restaurant wont have a wait staff. I a big circle than needs to turn evenly but right now it has big flat spot.
John Horn on Jan 7th, 2018:
I’ve lived in SF for 30 years, in a rent controlled apartment in the Civic Center area, and have worked in several graphic design jobs and various other fields. I’m fairly neutral with regard to whether the “techies” are ruining SF. It’s kind of inevitable that when digital technology comes along, when the Internet comes along, when cell phones come along - there’s going to be a major paradigm shift. And that’s just the way things change, although I do decry the fact that many artists, musicians and writers (not to mention school teachers) have been priced out of living here. And although I’m a bit in awe of the legacy of Steve Jobs (his difficult personality aside), I do think that Mark Zuckerberg is a creep.
I’m an old liberal and am sympathetic to homeless people generally. But there are many “street” people who are just very problematic people, with mental illness, abusive upbringings or substance abuse issues, etc. And in my neighborhood there’s a pretty high level of crimes of opportunity, such as car break-ins, druggy encampments, screaming in the night and other obnoxious weirdness. I’m sympathetic, but when someone is vandalizing my vehicle on the street or being an uncivilized asshole 20 feet from my apartment window at 1 AM, my compassion dissipates quickly.
Anonymous on Jan 7th, 2018:
So, we moved from Boston to SF in August 2001. The plane I was commuting on once a month went down in Pennsylvania on 911. We lived in Pleasanton in the East Bay with no visible homeless. I would commute to Mountainview, the SF and San Jose. The other cities were never an issue. But going into the City, I saw much of what you talked about. I was lucky and worked from home. However, every couple of months, a co-worker and I walked down through the Mission (he lives in the City and know how to maneuver and what to watch out for. We delivered a bottle of water, a packet of powdered something or other, socks, and a granola bar. I was at that point that I was a little too old to be doing it, because lugging the water around the City was serious work for an out of shape fat man. Sean would warn me which people not too approach, but the gratitude that people felt was embarrassing. That people show be so grateful for a simple human kindness.
It always made us furious to see so many in distress in the wealthiest country in the world. We never told anyone, because that’s not why we did it. While I am a devout atheist, I still believe in what are now apparently Communist tenets, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, and shelter the homeless.
Ted Miller on Jan 8th, 2018:
Thanks for the good read.
A few decades ago SF was an ordinary city with working-class and minority neighborhoods. The tech boom in the area changed all that.
The problems of homelessness etc are not unique to SF, but exist in all of coastal CA. IMHO as an ex-urban planner and working around housing, is that the correlation between a lack of affordable housing and high homelessness found in NY, CA, HI, etc is causal and not coincidental. A shortage of housing construction relative to job-related development leads to a scarcity of housing and high prices.
CA is often thought of as the most liberal (using US lexicon) state in the US. That may or may not be true, but it certainly is solidly controlled by the D’s. (As are all the states with the highest rates of homelessness.)
Are the problems you saw in SF the result of, or exacerbated by, public policy? I would say yes. Remedial action to alleviate a small portion of the worst of it is a nice, feel-good thing that does nothing to change the primary drivers of the fundamental problems.
Unfortunately I see no indication that public policy in CA will change to address the core reasons for what’s happened there. It seems more likely it will spread, like a cancer, to other areas of the US.